Quote of the day--a little theft goes a long way edition

>> Friday, November 05, 2010

Yes Monica, I have been doing this for 3 decades, having been an editor at The Voice, Housitonic Home and Connecticut Woman Magazine. I do know about copyright laws. It was "my bad" indeed, and, as the magazine is put together in long sessions, tired eyes and minds somethings forget to do these things.

But honestly Monica, the web is considered "public domain" and you should be happy we just didn't "lift" your whole article and put someone else's name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me... ALWAYS for free!

-Judith Griggs, managing editor of Cooks Source,
chastising a plagiarism victim for ingratitude.

It's worth reading the whole story at the link in the above quotebox, along with Nick Mamatas' comments here just to get an idea of the douchebaggery involved. Aside from Ms. Griggs' distressing ignorance of copyright law, the big scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of the apple pie is the way she condescendingly suggests the writer ought to be grateful that she was still credited for her work after it was misappropriated and they even edited it for her, to boot, good on them.

As loathe as I am to equate intellectual property with physical property--they're different animals and it's misleading to treat them the same--it's hard not to consider a metaphor of some carjacker declaiming to a court that his victim ought to be appreciative that he didn't take the car to a chopshop and he even took it to a detailing place and got it washed, how's that for exculpation? Plus, you know, he was really tired when he jerked the driver out of the seat and zoomed off with it, and you know how that is. But mainly, while we're here, Your Honor, when is he going to get his restitution--that was the nine dollar wash with the hot wax and undercarriage soak and everything.

Oh brother. Remember that old joke about chutzpah being the guy who kills his parents and then begs the court for mercy because he's an orphan? Yeah. "Hey, I edited your piece and publicly misrepresented that you wrote for my magazine when I republished it without your authorization and in violation of your legal rights, you should be grateful I didn't take your name off it like most people would've!"

To be massively clear: under American law, a work is protected by copyright as soon as it is published in fixed form (PDF link). That would include the content of a webpage. Fair Use Doctrine, which is an element of American copyright law, may allow someone to use portions of a work for limited noncommercial purposes such as commentary (e.g. the paragraph of a copyrighted letter from a copyrighted webpage, excerpted in the above quotebox, is used under the argument that it is a protected use under Fair Use Doctrine, since it is a small portion of the whole used in a noncommercial manner for the purposes of criticism and education). And works only enter the public domain if and when a copyright has expired or been waived by the copyright holder (i.e. the copyright holder has explicitly released the work into the public domain) or if the work was never protected by copyright in the first place.

One further notes that the Gode Cookery page that was plagiarized by Cooks Source has, at the very bottom of the page, an actual copyright notice (© 1997-2009 James L. Matterer), which I suspect was present when Cooks Source stole the material, as it appears to be a generic element of the Gode Cookery site layout. While unnecessary, this notice at least puts anyone using the site on notice that the page is copyrighted by somebody. (Also: were one to claim that this notice is small and at the bottom of the page, one would merely be embarrassing oneself; would a presumably professional editor and/or publisher really admit they're using an entire article without checking for a copyright, or, better yet, assuming it's copyrighted?)

An additional comment with reference to special cases like the blog entry you're reading right now: should you scroll to the bottom of this page, you will find the following notice, present in some form since the first entry was posted in this blog:

Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets, copyright 2007-2010 R. Eric VanNewkirk.
Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license.
All quotes, photographs, videos, music and readers' comments and linked or reproduced materials belong to their original authors or copyright holders.

You'll note, I hope, that an entry like this contains two important pieces of information about this blog. First, that original material is copyrighted by yours truly. Second, that you are allowed to use my copyrighted material under a license with these terms: (1) that you credit me with the work, (2) that you not use the work in a commercial manner and (3) that if you use my work you must use it under the same license you're allowed to use it under, that is you must share-alike and allow other people to use the portion you borrowed from me for noncommercial purposes so long as they credit me and also agree to share the work under the same terms and conditions forever down the chain.

I point this out for two reasons. First: the Gode Cookery article was not, as far as I can tell, published under any kind of common use license, so treating it as if it was would be a terrible mistake and a violation of the law. Second: a common use license does not make a work "public domain" or anything like public domain, notwithstanding the misapprehension some people have on this point. A common use license of whatever flavor gives downstream users permission to make use of a work under certain conditions and only under those conditions.

There's a little bit of ongoing debate over whether a use license is enforceable and how: specifically, whether such licenses are too broad to be enforceable as a matter of public policy, and if they are enforceable, whether the remedy is a breach of copyright remedy, a breach of contract remedy, or both. But the early indicators in cases like Jacobsen v. Katzer, 535 F. 3d 1373 (2008) are that, yes, a breach of a common use license has remedies under both contract and copyright law.

Now, as I pointed out: as far as I can tell, Gode Cookery isn't available under a commons license. But supposing it was? For convenience, let's use the Creative Commons 3.0 license this blog is published under. Did Cooks Source provide attribution? Yes, they did that much right. Did they use the work in a noncommercial manner? Hrm.

The "About Us" page at Cooks Source is decidedly ambiguous. They certainly appear to be a for-profit venture using articles as a vehicle for selling advertising in much the same way a commercial broadcast station wraps sitcoms, dramas, reality shows and news around the commercials that generate the broadcaster's profits. I was not able to find a business calling itself "Cooks Source" in the Commonwealth Of Massachusetts corporate registry, though I didn't look very hard and only looked there because Cooks Source lists a Massachusetts contact address (I also don't know that they would have registered under that particular name in any case if they are registered to do business anywhere; indeed, for all I know, "Cooks Source" in all its forms is merely Judith Griggs and a Mac in her basement). I'd certainly consider it a commercial use if Cooks Source republished a Giant Midgets post and would proceed accordingly.

This leaves the third point, which is unspecified and possibly moot: if one were to republish a share-alike licensed article from Cooks Source and republish it, would they bitch about it? And I have to say I suspect not, although that's mainly because they seem to be under the impression they're publishing a public domain work to start with (note the apparent lack of copyright information on their website). What if someone took their print edition and made a hundred photocopies of a commons-published Cooks Source article? Under a CC attribution, noncommercial, share-alike license that would be completely valid so long as the photocopies were properly attributed and used in a noncommercial way (and themselves allowed to be copied in the same fashion). Would Cooks Source complain then? That I don't know, but if they did, it would be a breach of contract.

Now, I can't say this too many times: none of this actually applies to the Gode Cookery article, which (as far as I can tell) wasn't licensed. But I hope it provides a useful discussion and illustration of some points of law and best practice, etc. The bottom line is that if you don't see a license on a webpage, don't plagiarize from it and then act like you're doing the author a favor when you've taken his or her work and misrepresented your permission to use it. You wouldn't think that would need to be said, but apparently it does.

SNARKY POSTSCRIPT: So I'm typing this thing, see, and I suddenly realize that throughout the post, I've been referring to Cooks Source as "Cook's Source," which is evidently wrong. There apparently isn't an apostrophe.

Now, this is mildly amusing for two reasons.

The first is that they presumably mean their name to convey that they are a source for a cook or for cooks, in which case the possessive apostrophe is necessary either before the "s" or after it (if they mean to be a source for multiple cooks, natch). And yet they've somehow lost or forgotten it, which is funny considering how much Ms. Griggs makes of her editorial prowess, generosity and experience. Honestly, I really don't consider free editing from a place that doesn't know how to create a possessive noun to be any benefit at all and I wouldn't be impressed that they'd offered it. I'd even worry they'd managed to make me look like a bigger idiot than usual by misspelling something I'd done right.

Second, the only way to make "Cooks Source" make sense is if the phrase is a fragment consisting of the plural noun and verb "source," meaning "To specify the origin of (a communication); document: The report is thoroughly sourced." Some irony in that formulation in the present context should be self-evident, I think.


vince Friday, November 5, 2010 at 1:08:00 AM EDT  

Apparently the magazine has stolen a lot of material from others, including images: The Cooks Source Scandal: How a Magazine Profits on Theft

Eric Friday, November 5, 2010 at 9:26:00 AM EDT  

Thanks for that link, Vince! Ye gods! I'd suggest everyone follow that link and read the article.

John the Scientist Friday, November 5, 2010 at 11:39:00 PM EDT  

Dude, one point you are missing is that the original article maintined the medieval spellings, and the "editing" consisted of modernizing same. o.O

Eric Saturday, November 6, 2010 at 12:11:00 AM EDT  

Yeah, I know, but thanks for pointing that out, because you're right: it makes the "OH, BUT I FIXED IT" comments from Ms. Griggs even more ironically funny.

Janiece Saturday, November 6, 2010 at 8:35:00 PM EDT  

Have you seen this?

Schadenfreude, thy name is "Machadaynu Internet Eradication Service"

Eric Sunday, November 7, 2010 at 12:03:00 AM EDT  

Oh. My.

I'd seen their FB page a few days ago, Janiece, but thanks for the link to the MIES updated one. I really hope MIES got paid for, ah, "improving" the page, though. Because that's how the public domain Internet works, y'know: you steal something, improve it, and the owner pays you for your services.



Eric Sunday, November 7, 2010 at 12:09:00 AM EDT  

Oh, and everyone: the Cooks Source recipe for fried chicken is excellent. Take a look. (H/t to a commenter on Pharyngula.)

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